Publisher's Weekly, April, 2019

Based on a real-life journey, this fictional account in verse by Russell (Tofu Quilt) details the harrowing 13-month flight of an 11-year-old ethnic Chinese refugee from Vietnam, beginning in May 1979 during the Vietnamese boat people exodus. Lam’s mother buys passage for Lam and her two brothers to make their way to their father (who previously escaped the newly Communist country for San Francisco), but when her older brother is arrested en route to the boat, Lam is suddenly in charge of her seven-year-old sibling Dee Dee. In a straightforward voice, she narrates the relentlessly repugnant, often tragic details of the ordeal—pirates, lack of potable water, a corpse aboard. What emerges most prominently is the strong bonds that form among the passenger community, tied together not only by their conditions, both at sea and in refugee camps in Malaysia and Indonesia, but by shared anxiety about their future. Kindness and generosity—a refugee family takes Lam and Dee Dee under their wing—even in the face of selfishness and betrayal, mark Lam’s story, as do her resilience and growing maturity. An opening historical note and map provide necessary context, and an epilogue from the actual Lam makes for a reassuring close. Ages 10–14. Agent: Adria Goetz, Martin Literary Management.

Utopia State of Mind, May, 2019

Written in verse, House Without Walls is a haunting and raw story of a child’s journey to flee. A historical fiction middle grade, House Without Walls details Lam’s journey from Vietnam, fleeing the political change in power, to escape to anywhere. Her family has already been separated because of this conflict, and Lam is very aware of the danger not only to her family, but to herself as a girl.

The details are harrowing and even though Russell talks about how this version of events has been made accessible for children, it does not shy away from showing the danger and conditions they face. All while showing the way that children will, despite it all, remain children, have moments of joy and play. 

House Without Walls asks us how we will act when faced with people in peril, danger, and fleeing. Will we take advantage of their vulnerability, or rise to action? House Without Walls showcases people doing both of these actions, when survival brings out the best and worst in us. It’s about a temporary home, how home changes as our relationship and location shift.

brazenbibliosoph (Gretchen), May, 2019

A novel for youth written in verse; Russell tells the story of Southern Vietnamese “boat people”, beginning in May of 1979. This group were targeted by the Vietcong Communist party when they took over Saigon in 1975. By 1978, the government was shutting down their businesses, taking away their homes, and sending men to reeducation camps or forcing them to fight against China at the border. Both deadly missions.

In order to escape communist rule, 1 million Vietnamese and Chinese fled and traveled by boat. Most did not survive. They sought refuge in countries along the Malaysian coastline, and other Southeast Asians countries. The boat trip was brutal, inhumane, unsanitary, and abysmal.

Our main character’s name is Lam, and her brothers are Daigo and Dee Dee. The story opens with the three siblings saying goodbye to their Ah Mah (grandma) and ma (mother), nervous about leaving their home and family. Their Baba (father) escaped two years ago after his shop was shut down, and now lives in San Francisco. The goal is to get to America to live with him.

Lam and Dee Dee endure a 13 month journey from Vietnam to San Francisco, and during each part, emotions run high. On the open sea there is a fear of pirates, fear of running out of drinkable water and food, fear of the boat dying, and fear of each other dying. On land in refugee camps, hope is brought by the Red Cross. But, then disease spreads, deadly snakes bite, and depression sets in. They endured a treacherous trek, and Russell does an amazing job of relaying the truth of what happened during this forgotten time in our world’s history. It was a pleasure and an honor to learn about Lam’s story from Russell’s perspective.

Booklist, Kay Weisman, June, 2019

Set soon after the 1975 Fall of Saigon, Russell’s novel reveals how life in Communist Vietnam becomes especially difficult for ethnic Chinese residents. Eleven-year-old Lam and her brothers, Daigo and Dee Dee, flee, hoping to join their baba in San Francisco. Tragically, Daigo is arrested by police before boarding the boat, and the sea journey is fraught with difficulties for Lam and the younger Dee Dee: lack of food and water, pirate raids, a leaky ship, and “rescuers” who tow their boat into international waters to avoid providing sanctuary. Eventually Lam and Dee Dee arrive in a refugee camp, where they use sticks and a plastic drop cloth to construct a house without walls. Russell’s fictionalized verse novel is based on the experiences of two of her friends, whose own journey paralleled that of Lam and Dee Dee. The account is frequently gritty (reflecting the cruelties refugees often experience) but is lightened by the kindness displayed by one family who informally adopts the siblings. Emphasizing resilience and hope, this reminds readers that refugee issues are perennial.

Michelle Kenneth, July, 2019

If you want to understand the plight of the immigrant and those fleeing their country, you need to read this. This book is aimed at a Middle Grade audience, but I believe everyone should read it. Each chapter is short with simple paragraphs (like poetry, but it is not) to tell the story of two children left to fend for themselves as they try to escape Vietnam in 1979. They face pirate attacks, a sinking ship, hunger, thirst, poisonous insects, snakes, rape scares, etc. all in an effrort to find a safe haven in another country. Their aim is to make it to America where their father is.

Luckily, a family decides to help these two children during their stay in refugee camps, even though they face their own devastating losses. The most important thing they do is teach them how to survive on their own.

I think my heart will always be with these two kids, because they are so much like the children that are racing to other countries around the world as the only homes they have ever known are destroyed. They are earning to survive.

A must read for all.

Eason L. (from, August, 2019

House without Walls is a powerful story about the arduous journey two children embark to escape Vietnam as they head to the United States. In one sense, the book illuminates the trials and tribulations that so many people throughout history have gone to escape an oppressive regime, embark on an odyssey filled with unknown dangers, and seek a better life. Yet in this tale, House Without Walls paints the unique picture of the Vietnam Boat People Exodus in 1979, and does so with a level of descriptive detail that gives the reader a clear picture of each scene and emotional impetus the author seeks to depict. The book is written in verse, which does an exemplary job of giving each descriptive detail added "punch" that I really enjoyed. Although the book is targeted to a middle grade audience, the verse narrative may be a unique concept to most students of this age typically used to reading chapter books written in more formal prose. As a result, this book can serve as inspiration for students by providing an example of a different form of expressive and effective storytelling, one which students can take inspiration from as they progress through their own writing development. A wonderful read and highly recommended!

School Library Journal, October, 2019

Lam is an 11-year-old Chinese Vietnamese girl who, along with her seven-year-old brother Dee Dee, becomes part of the Boat People Exodus in 1979 Vietnam. They are leaving behind their ma and ah mah to join their baba in America. Lam describes their harrowing journey, detailing their deteriorating conditions and daily fears on the boat, as well as their experiences at refugee camps in Malaysia and Indonesia. Readers will share the children’s emotional high and lows, and witness both the ugliness and beauty of humanity. Told in beautifully written verse from Lam’s perspective, this story is a combination of the real-life Lam’s journey, accounts told to the author by other refugees, and a bit of imagination. There is a map for context at the beginning of the book and a glossary, with several of those terms italicized throughout. A moving and thought-provoking picture of a refugee experience filled with both tragedy and hope.

Miss Marple's Musings, September 17, 2019

The reader will be immersed in the trauma experienced on the journey from the first person POV of eleven-year-old Lam. On the flimsy vessels, she, her little brother and the other refugees endure: pirate attacks, lack of food, nausea/vomiting, being urinated on, and corpses (as not everyone made it to shore, alive). Even on land, there is rape, illnesses, insects, snakes, leeches, lack of clean water, and military violence to fear. Despite these dreadful conditions, Lam and dee Dee make friends, and a generous “uncle and auntie” adopt them and care for them despite their own grievous devastation. The refugees slowly piece together a way of life as they fight to stay alive, learning to live in a house without walls in the Indonesian refugee camp (a long interim step before being allowed to leave for the USA.)

This story was based on interviews conducted by Russell over many years with Lam (and Dee and many many other refugees.) These facts are related in the prologue that shares a number of details about the real life Lam and Dee Dee as well as other historical facts. Russell shares that because of the target middle grade audience, she toned down the horrors of these refugee journeys. But she doesn’t spare the reader from the courage and tragedy of our young protagonist, and the story remains beautifully authentic. The Vietnam Boat People Exodus dates back 40 years, and yet the telling here is so fresh, and of course so pertinent to our present days, that I highly recommend this title for middle schools libraries and any class units on refugees. With its verse format, it is a quick read; I finished the novel in an evening as was surprised at being moved to tears more than once. 

Reviews of House Without Walls